'The Teacher' ('Ucitelka'): Karlovy Vary Review

The Teacher Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of KVIFF

The Teacher Still - Publicity - H 2016

Bad Education.

The first Slovak-language feature from lauded Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk, who directed the Oscar-nominated 'Divided We Fall,' took home the best actress award at the Karlovy Vary fest.

If a teacher helps her charges, then why shouldn’t the kids’ parents help the educator? That is a possible explanation for the behavior of the protagonist of the impressive Slovak-language drama The Teacher (Ucitelka), directed by renowned Czech director Jan Hrebejk (Up and Down, Honeymoon) and written by his regular screenwriter, Petr Jarchovsky. Though somewhat slow out of the starting blocks, this finally caustic drama, set in early 1980s Bratislava (then in Czechoslovakia), accumulates power and insight as it builds over the course of a tense parents-teachers conference, punctuated with the necessary flashbacks. A likely contender for either the Czech Republic or Slovakia’s foreign-language Oscar submission, especially since Hrebejk’s Holocaust drama Divided We Fall was already nominated back in 2000, this should also see a very respectable festival run and several offshore pickups, in especially Eastern Europe and cinema-loving territories such as France. 

At first sight, the bespectacled Marie Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery) seems like an ordinary middle school teacher, perhaps a little stern and on the dowdy side but the kind of sharp educator who can spot what a child’s needs are from miles away. Unfortunately, she uses her cunning insights mostly for her own gain, knowing just what to say to the children to get their parents to do her favors — a haircut, sending a package ... — in exchange for good grades or the lowdown on upcoming tests (“your child should especially revise …”). Since it’s 1982, smack in the Communist era, many people sought to supplement their meager income any way they could.

The setup of the story, inspired by a real-life event in the late 1970s in Jarchovsky’s own life, cuts between the beginning of a new school year, when each student is asked to present themselves and their parents’ jobs to the teacher (a simple task that turns out to be not all that innocent in hindsight), and the parents of each of the pupils sitting down at a parents-teachers meeting. Good casting, clever camera blocking and sharp cutting by Vladimir Barak help clarify which kid belongs to which family, with three of them rebelling against Ms Drazdechova’s behavior, much to the dismay of the others present, who are happy their offspring are doing so well. But Hrebejk and Jarchovsky need too much time to properly establish all their players on two timelines, how they are connected and how these connections relate to the film’s subject.

The story begins to gain steam and its thematic complexity finally comes into view when all the accusations against the titular protagonist are out in the open and Hrebejk and Barak can move back and forth between the parents-teachers conference and the protagonist’s suspicious behavior in the past school year. This illustrates the dangerous moral vacuum that is created by repressive systems such as Soviet-style Communism, where a combination of several factors — including the fact that the enormous working class had no money and social mobility was the antithesis of state ideology — ushered in an epoch of favoritism that people got used to very quickly, since it’s an inexpensive way to advance two different players in an unfair system at once.

The corrosive effect of favoritism among (almost) equals is the real subject of Jarchovsky’s screenplay, because unfair advancement in a system in which everyone is supposedly equal causes not only resentment but also has the terrible side effect of squashing the very people who are actually talented but whose personal morality or lack of access or funds might prevent them from playing the games others — in this case, Comrade Drazdechova — expect them to play. The best example of this is the storyline involving father Littmann (Peter Bebjak), a former astrophysicist whose equally brilliant wife escaped to the West, turning him into an outcast and effectively denying Czechoslovakian science his potentially brilliant contributions. His interactions with the titular protagonist, who might have an eye on him, go right to the heart of the material.

Hrebejk has always been an exceptional director of actors and his latest, though in Slovak rather than Czech (the two are mutually intelligible), is no exception. Maurery, who won the Best Actress prize at the recent Karlovy Vary fest for her performance, delivers a complex take on her character, making her not the villain of the piece as much as someone who sees herself go tragically down the wrong path and then can’t stop herself since her behavior makes her life better; Ms. Drazdechova is a victim of the system as much as a proactive wrongdoer. She’s surrounded by a standout ensemble that includes Divided We Fall’s Csongor Kassai, as one of the parents, and the young Richard Labuda, the grandson of respected Slovak actor and Jiri Menzel regular Marian Labuda, as one of the children.  

Cinematographer Martin Ziaran, art director Juraj Fabry and costume designer Katarina Strbova Bielikova have come up with a warm look, with colorful, 1970s-like patterns. This initially counterintuitive choice is the opposite of the cold, austere and bleak way in which the Romanian New Wave has visualized the Communist era, for example. But it works beautifully as a counterpoint because despite the warmly nostalgic look, the film’s themes and message make it clear the era was not something we should look back on fondly in any way.

Production companies: Rozhlas a televizia Slovenska, Pub Res, Offside Men, Ceska Televize

Cast: Zuzana Maurery, Csongor Kassai, Peter Bebjak, Martin Havelka, Ondrej Maly, Eva Bandor, Zuzana Konecna, Richard Labuda

Director: Jan Hrebejk

Screenplay: Petr Jarchovsky

Producers: Tibor Buza, Zuzana Mistrikova, Lubica Orechovska, Ondrej Zima, Jan Prusinovsky, Kateriny Ondrejkove

Director of photography: Martin Ziaran

Production designer: Juraj Fabry

Costume designer: Katarina Strbova Bielikova

Editor: Vladimir Barak

Music: Michal Novinski

Sales: Level K

No rating, 102 minutes